President-Elect Column: Disease Threat, Racism, and Immigration

Published by Division 45 on

Yolanda E. Garcia

I wrote this column during the first week of March while alternately scanning my email for notification that upcoming travel might be canceled due to precautions regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19). I thought about what is happening in our society and how viral threat and panic about shortages of resources have most often brought about the worst in human beings. Arbitrarily drawn demarcations serve to highlight imagined differences between the ingroup and the perceived outgroup that provide a false sense of unity and security for the ingroup.

From a social representation theory perspective, socially constructed beliefs help people make sense of disease threat and protect the group in power by stigmatizing the outgroup (Gilles et al., 2013; Joffe, 1999). This process of othering faults those who are ill for origination and spreading of disease.

The dehumanizing effects of racism and its intersection with both immigration and fear of disease contagion are not new, and hark back to outbreaks of “black death,” swine flu, typhoid, polio, Ebola, SARS, and AIDS, that respectively targeted Jewish, Mexican, Italian/Irish, African, Asian, and gay communities. Panic, perpetuated by sensationalist media images and those afraid of contamination, promotes false narratives about immigrants and those perceived as “foreigners” as engaging in strange cultural practices or failures in hygiene, education, or moral self-control that have caused and perpetuated disease (Joffe & Lee, 2004; Joffe & Staerklé, 2007). In the US, immigrants and people of color are viewed from a racist lens as not only not-American but also not human, and therefore deserving of expressions of disgust and violence.

Living in Arizona, a state that borders Mexico, I have long been aware of the historical effects of immigration rhetoric common to Southwestern states. For example, in 1916, typhus broke out in a California railroad camp due to unsanitary conditions created by employers, sickening 26 people, 22 of them Mexican workers, and killing 5 of the Mexican workers. Newspaper reports decried the “type of people that come across the border,” and spurred the establishment of intrusive physical inspections resulting in a sort of medicalization of racism (Molina, 2011). Today, as with outbreaks in the past, the media has assisted in the construction of COVID-19 as uniquely related to a specific cultural group, in this case, Asians and Asian-Americans. This practice makes race “the organizing principle for understanding disease [which] transforms perceived others from unfortunate victims of disease to active transmitters of deadly germs” (Molina, 2011, p. 1026), making race and culture, which are not medical factors, the disease carriers. As historically has been the case, fears of disease outbreaks and contagion are now being employed in efforts to reframe immigration policy.

As I wrapped up this brief column, distracted by the pending cancellation of my March travel plans, I checked my email again and was heartened to see that our phenomenal Division 45 colleagues had shared powerful statements of support and resources to promote healing and understanding about the effects of stigmatization over COVID-19. These messages of understanding, support, and action on behalf of those disproportionately suffering the effects of the virus and those targeted for mistreatment by virtue of perceived otherness continue to flow on the listserv.  Division 45 members demonstrate daily through word and action that viral threats and resource shortages sometimes actually bring out the best in people. I feel humbled to be part of such a caring and talented group.


Gilles, I., Bangerter, A., Clémence, A., Green, E. G. T., Krings, F., Mouton, A., Rigaud, D., Staerklé, C., & Wagner, E. P. (2013). Collective symbolic coping with disease threat and othering: A case study of avian influenza. British Journal of Social Psychology52(1), 83–102.

Joffe, H. (1999). Risk and the “other”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Joffe, H., & Lee, N. Y. L. (2004). Social representation of a food risk: The Hong Kong avian bird flu epidemic. Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 517–533. doi:10.1177/1359105304044036

Joffe, H., & Staerklé, C. (2007). The centrality of the self-control ethos in Western aspersions regarding outgroups: A social representational analysis of common stereotype content. Culture and Psychology, 13, 395–418. doi:10.1177/1354067X07082750

Molina, N. (2011). Borders, laborers, and racialized medicalization: Mexican immigration and US public health practices in the 20th century. American Journal of Public Health101(6), 1024–1031.

Focus Spring 2020